Sunday, February 17, 2013

THE QUEST


THE QUEST



PROLOGUE



The Daemon awoke in a vortex of fire.

Lord Harold carried Tarsus, the weapon of legend. Lady Hathaway stood at the side of her Liege. She reached into her satchel and withdrew a large, shimmering ruby. Harold took the jewel and placed it in the base of Tarsus. The ancient longsword became covered in a crimson nimbus which trailed behind the would-be daemon slayer and his mistress.

“We have found you at last, Gor!” Lord Harold declared. “The residents of the Fae Realm have rejected your agenda of tyranny. This is your last chance to leave our world in peace.”

“I see you, Paladins. You are foolish to have ventured this far into my domain. I know not how you evaded my guardians and sentinels. They will be duly punished for their failure. I reject your peace offering and will destroy you, now. Your deaths will be an example to all mortals who seek to meddle with magical forces beyond their ken.”

“Don't be so sure, Gor.” the Lady Hathaway intoned. “As you can see my husband bears Tarsus, the sword of the ancient Dweomers. It is now charged with the ruby talisman of the Ashgar Wilds. Thus we oppose you and will not be turned by your idle threats.”

Lady Hathaway drew an Elven bow from her travel pack and placed an enchanted arrow on the sinewy string. She drew the bolt back and loosed the projectile at the Daemon. Her shot hit the fiery beast squarely in the chest.

The arrowhead had been magically charged by the Wood Elves of the Ashgar Forest. They were longtime enemies of Gor and his legions and had gone at great lengths to arm the Liege Lady with a potent weapon.

The entry point spewed green light from several cracks in the glowing Daemon's boiling hide. Gor was startled and knocked back by the impact of the shot. The Daemon clutched the shaft of the arrow and the green light spread into his massive hand and forearm. He gasped in surprise at the force and strength of the enhanced assault. It took Gor a moment to focus on the infection and drive out the spreading, green magic from his red and black flesh.

Harold did not wait for the Daemon to heal himself fully. He wielded Tarsus over his head then brought the blade down in a forceful blow to Gor's midsection. Again the beast was startled but clearly would restore himself in a matter of moments.

“Ah, I commend you two,” Gor hissed. “You have powerful friends to carry such weapons in this era. Alas, their efforts are in vain for I, too, have grown in strength since the War of the Ancients. Your precious forest will soon be mine along with the settlements you claim to protect. Feel my wrath, now, and know that you shall be the last of your line to confront me.”

The angry Daemon swung his smoldering, clawed hands in a rending attack at the Paladins, compromising their elaborate armor and scorching their flesh in stripes of sizzling tissue. The pair of Lieges groaned in pain.

In an act of desperation Lord Harold rushed Gor with Tarsus held before him. The flaming sword ran through the Daemon's chest left of center. Harold stepped back from the speared Daemon, certain that his target would fall.

Gor looked down at the hilt of Tarsus.

“Ah, what an eye-catching gem that is. It has been ages since I saw it last. You two must have searched far and wide to retrieve it. It's previous owner was quite attached to it, as I'm sure you learned.”

Lord Harold staggered under the duress of his injury, as did Lady Hathaway. She drew a polished dagger from her belt in preparation for a final maneuver.

“The magic of Tarsus is within you, Gor! Your daemonic flesh is now bonded with a Dweomer spirit.”

“That is good. Now we are relatives of a sort. Perhaps I will take this jewel as a trophy.”

Gor gripped the handle of Tarsus with both hands and pulled the hefty blade from his chest. Flame and sulfur gushed from the wound but the Daemon was not concerned by this. He gripped the ruby at the base and pulled the gem free. Gor took a moment to ogle the enchanted artifact then thrust it into the opening in his chest.

“No, Gor!” yelled Lord Harold.

The Paladins moved to stop the beast from metastasizing the ruby but it was too late. Lady Hathaway rushed the Daemon and wielded her dagger. This she thrust at Gor, generating lancing blows to his arms and torso. Lord Harold joined the fray, pummeling the massive humanoid with his gauntlets and boots.

“Enough!” bellowed Gor. “I am weary of the folly of you mortals. Crystalix!”

Before the pair of Paladins could act further they were encased in a giant, carbon crystal summoned by the Daemon. Gor chuckled in a deep, bass laugh.

“Ah, that is a better trophy. I will keep you two as a message to any would-be meddlers. Your struggle is over, now. It is only a matter of time until I have drained the life-force of you aspiring Paladins. I will watch and wait. I am truly bonded with the magic of the Fae Realm. It will be but a smattering of years before I make my move on your pesky kindred.

The hulking Daemon hoisted the massive crystal containing his trapped prisoners and set its angular, geometric base to hover on a jet of fire next to his throne.

































CHAPTER ONE


The Autumn wind gusted through the forest. Dweomer Village bustled with the projects of the day. Each member of the settlement rushed to complete necessary tasks ahead of the first snowfall. These jobs included the gathering of grain and preservation of game captured in the deep trails of the Ashgar Wilds.

Hedrick awoke in his bed in his uncle's workshop. The jingling of wind chimes and creaking of mobile weather vanes permeated the sunlit room. The aging Dweomer had stepped in as a caretaker of the youngster when Hedrick's parents vanished seven years before.

“Hedrick, are you awake? I need your help with a project, here.”

“Yes, Uncle Ram.”

The Dweomer, now twenty summers old, rose from his bed and washed his face and hands in a basin nearby. He approached his uncle and gazed at the scattered pieces of his so-called project.

The workshop table was covered with spindly, iron wires and metal frames.

“What is it?” asked the younger Dweomer.

“It is going to be a wind harness. It will use these alternately aligned magnets to spin on opposing axes to generate small streams of lightning just like the storm clouds. I have attached several wires to the perimeter of this glass crystal. Please turn this crank and watch what happens.”

Hedrick did as his uncle asked and began to turn the crank. In a matter of seconds the filaments around the glass sparked and glowed, then suddenly, began to burn, breaking from their tethers and dropping the glass to the surface of the workshop table.

“It doesn't look like that was supposed to happen, Uncle.”

“No, that's fine, Hedrick. I just wanted you to see the energy you produced. The wind harness will turn a larger crank and hopefully I'll find a filament that will glow without burning soon. Then we will have the light of ten candles to work on projects after sundown.”

The music of the wind chimes changed in key and the weather vane atop the bungalow turned with the shifting wind. The air grew chilled and thunder rumbled in the distance. The two Dweomers looked to the windows and the sky beyond. Dark storm clouds coalesced on the horizon.

“A storm is coming,” said Ram. “Hedrick, help me to close up shop for today. The windows must be battened down for I don't want my material to rust prematurely.”

“Sure, Uncle,” answered the youthful Dweomer.

Hedrick grabbed a lengthy pole with a hook on the end. He used the tool to lower and lock the glass panes in the conical house. Then he went outside to secure the shutters.

The atmosphere of Dweomer Village had changed significantly. Vendors hurried to close their businesses ahead of the storm. Children picked up their toys and hustled to their parents indoors. One farmer used a net to collect loose chickens and geese that had been released to forage earlier that morning.

Hedrick was finishing his task when he had an eerie feeling that he was being watched.

“Excuse me,” hissed a scratchy voice. “Can you direct me to shelter? I'm new in this area and am unfamiliar with these roads.”

Hedrick closed the last pair of shutters and turned to address the person who was speaking. It was a tall Dweomer dressed in green, with a dark, gray cowl and tunic. The newcomer lowered his hood, revealing a middle-aged Dweomer with green eyes and a ruddy complexion.

“My name is Xander. I hearken from the southern forests of Ashgar, as you may have guessed.”

“Yes,” answered Hedrick. “You possess the features of the Southern Dweomers. What brings you to our village in the north?”

“I am a collector of sorts,” the mysterious traveler replied. “I am seeking a rare amulet. It was a talisman used by my people for centuries but it was stolen in recent years. Have you noticed any unusual magical activity in this area?”

“No,” Hedrick answered. “But I am relatively young and have been busy hunting and helping my uncle. You should speak with him. He is well-versed in history and the commerce following the end of the War of the Ancients.

“In addition he may be able to find a place for you to rest tonight. This village is small and does not have a boarding house or inn. There is clearly a storm brewing on the horizon and there is not much time before the Autumn rain is upon us. Come with me, Xander. I will introduce you to my uncle, Ram.”

Hedrick led Xander up the short flight of steps to the deck of the sometime tinker of Dweomer Village. He turned the handle of the front door and held it open so that Xander could enter.

“Greetings, Uncle,” Hedrick intoned. “We have a guest from the south. His name is Xander and has need of shelter for the evening.”

Ram looked up from his counter top and rose to meet the visitor. They exchanged pleasantries and shook hands.

“Welcome to my humble residence, Xander,” Ram offered. “There isn't much room here amid my projects and experiments but I think we can accommodate you.”

“Thank you, kind tinker,” said the southerner. “I will do my best to stay out of the way and compensate you for your generosity.”

“That won't be necessary,” Ram replied.

Before the tinker was able to elaborate the stranger sauntered over to the work counter and eyed the bric-a-brac with curiosity and interest.

“I see you are a dabbler in metallurgy and static charges.”

Xander picked up the angular, glass crystal used in Ram's earlier experiment. The visitor held the prism to his eye and turned to face Hedrick.

“A rare trinket this is...Where, if you don't mind my asking, did you find it?”

“I made it myself,” answered Ram. “Along with being something of the unofficial tinker of Dweomer Village I am also a glass blower. This crystal is part of an illumination project of mine to find a lasting source of light, brighter than candles and smaller than torches and firebrands.”

“That is quite a curiosity, Ram. You clearly are a good role-model for this young Dweomer. I wish you the utmost success in your endeavors. I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before much of the Ashgar Forest becomes aware of the fruits of your research.”

I'm not so sure about this Xander, thought Hedrick. Apart from the storm these are trying times. Word has spread of hostile entities adrift in the greater forest. I don't suppose that this strange visitor is directly related to them but the disappearance of known travelers and minstrels in recent weeks does not raise my trust of unrecognized visitors...especially such inquisitive ones. I'll keep my eye on him with the intention of determining what his underlying motives may ultimately be.

Hedrick returned the gaze of the mysterious visitor as he stared through Ram's crystal. The young Dweomer moved casually through the workshop and made a conscious effort to conceal his growing suspicion.

The storm blustered and showered on Dweomer Village.

“Ah, the rainy season is here at last, my friends!” Ram declared. “It appears you secured our living quarters none too soon, nephew.”

“Come, Xander. Let me offer you some of my tea. It is good for the soul.”

“Alas, I have traveled far this day and am overcome with fatigue. With your permission I will retire for the evening.”

The red-haired Dweomer yawned and stretched as he drew his travel cloak tightly about his shoulders.

“By all means, rest yourself, my southern guest. You must conserve your strength for your quest for your mysterious amulet is bound to be long and arduous.”

Ram beckoned to Hedrick.

“Nephew, guide Xander to sleeping quarters in the loft above. There it is warm and dry.”

Hedrick did as his uncle asked and lowered the folding staircase that was used to access the second floor of the workshop. He led the green-cloaked traveler to an auxiliary storage room and lit a candelabra that stood on a nearby table. The young Dweomer unfurled a woven, straw mat on the plank wood floor and covered it with a clean horse blanket.

“Ah, thank you, Hedrick,” the weary fellow intoned. “These lodgings are more than sufficient.”

The southerner hastily lay on the mat and covered himself with the blanket. Xander closed his eyes and soon drifted into a troubled slumber.

Hedrick left the sleeping Dweomer and returned downstairs so that he might help Ram make the final adjustments in the process of closing up shop for the night. In a matter of moments the pair of aspiring tinkers had their experiments stored away and they curled up on their respective cots next to the flaring embers of the hearth fire.

The thunder boomed repeatedly over Dweomer Village and bolts of lightning pierced the darkness.

Hedrick dreamed out of space and time. His thoughts were incoherent and obscure. Shadows and mist surrounded him as he rested. He tried to call out to his uncle for aid but found himself mute.

Ram's nephew awoke in a cold sweat. He opened his eyes and sat up, breathing heavily. Although unable to say why Hedrick sensed something was wrong. The embers of the hearth fire had gone cold and the only visible lights in the shop were the thin rays of candlelight that shone through the cracks of the loft far above.

Suddenly a loud crash permeated the room and the entrance door was shattered under a barrage of blows. Lightning flashed once more and, as the report of the following thunder shook the building, Hedrick saw the silhouettes of a number of troglodytes as they strode forcefully into the workshop.

“Run, uncle!” Hedrick yelled. “We are under attack!”

The flexible Dweomer rolled off of his cot and reached to a nearby toolbox. He grabbed a hammer, designed for breaking stones, and tried to hide amid a stack of storage barrels next to the defunct hearth.

Hedrick was shaken by the sound of breaking vials and bludgeoned instruments. He told himself to stay silent, however, afraid of being spotted by the reptilian humanoids.

The troglodytes huffed and grunted among themselves as they sniffed the damp air with suspicion.

“Keep searching, mates,” bellowed an invader. “The amulet must be here.”

“Yes, Thornfoot,” replied another. “I clearly watched the southerner exit the forest road which leads to this scrawny village.”

Hedrick's body trembled with fear, not just for his own well-being but for that of his uncle and the visitor above. The young Dweomer's palms were slick with sweat and it was the best he could do to hold the hammer in a sloppy grip.

The brigands kicked over several more crates and Hedrick was sure that he would soon be found. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for a final, life-or-death struggle.

An eerie light filled the room. All the humanoids present turned to the source. Ram stood wearing a miner's hat with an ignited candle on top. He lowered his head and lit the fuse of the matchlock on a large, experimental blunderbuss.

“Welcome to my house!”

Before the troglodytes could react Ram fired his weapon at the nearest invader. A loud explosion shook the workshop and the targeted adversary was punctured with high-velocity shot. The force of the impact threw the would-be thief out the broken doorway from which he had emerged and he slid, lifeless in the mud outside.

Three of the reptilian humanoids remained, however, and they uttered a blood-curdling battle cry as they wielded their swords and axes overhead.

Hedrick seized the moment and rose from his hiding place to contend with the nearest opponent. He clutched his hammer firmly and struck the troglodyte's jaw as hard as he could. The marauder spun and fell to the floor, never to rise again.

“You have done wrong by these gentle Dweomers,” a southern voice twanged. “They have given me their hospitality and hence are under my protection.”

Xander appeared at the top of the folding stairway. Before he pulled the lever which extended the steps downward he enchanted a magical sorcery.

“Ballust!”

The red-haired Dweomer gestured at the troglodytes with his hands and unleashed a scorching ball of flame. The missile struck an invader and burst into a twisting conflagration, quickly burning the hostile humanoid into a smoldering carcass.

Witnessing the compromised intentions of his cohorts, the last brigand turned to flee. He was not quick enough, though, and his skull was split by the swinging butt of Ram's smoking blunderbuss.

Xander succeeded in descending the stairs from the adjoining loft and he gripped Ram by the shoulders in congratulation.

“Well done, my friend tinker! You have more tricks up your sleeve than one may suspect!

“Good job, young Hedrick! Your warning awoke me from a rest that I may otherwise never have broken in this lifetime. You have proven your courage this night in more than one fashion and I am in your debt.”

“That was horrible,” Hedrick cried.

The Dweomer was clearly traumatized by the violent entry of his home.

“What's going on? Who are you, Xander? What is this amulet that you and these lizards are so desperate to find?”

“Those are things that I would also like to know, Xander,” said Ram.

The tinker eyed the southern visitor with frustration and curiosity.

“There aren't many magical adepts in these parts. Someone with resources such as yours must have good reason to be here, in our modest village. I believe you owe us an explanation.”

“Yes, you both are correct. I am a secretive traveler. My reticence is justified, though, if you will hear me out. I fear, however, for the safety of the Dweomers of this village. I didn't expect the troglodytes had followed me this quickly or were willing to assert such desperate measures to get what they seek. Before we discuss the amulet in question further let us rouse the residents of this settlement and build a bonfire at the center of town. It will enhance the safety of us all.

“This was merely a scouting party. The troglodytes do not move in idle groups and will soon be here in full force. I wouldn't be surprised to know that they watch this village from the woods beyond as I speak.”

“Very well, Xander,” Ram replied. “For the security of the Dweomers we will do as you ask. But mark my words. After the bonfire is built I demand a hearty explanation from you.”

“Certainly, staunch tinker,” said Xander. “Let us be on our way. We have much to do in little time.”

The trio of defenders of Dweomer Village set themselves to the task at hand. They opened picket and wicker gates and pounded on doors until the residents within were awakened and emerged. Farmers collected what pitchforks, hatchets and scythes were available and distributed them among the able-bodied Dweomers as a roaring bonfire was built at the town's center.

Xander addressed the now alert population in the drizzling rain as elderly Dweomers tended to the children close to the tall flames.

“My fellow Dweomers, I regret to inform you that this way of life has been terminated. You are no longer safe here, on the outskirts of Ashgar Forest. The troglodytes and, I fear what else, are on the move to a degree not seen since the War of the Ancients. They seek many things, not the least of which being fortune and power. I apologize for not standing before you as I do now sooner. I did not realize that I was being followed so closely in my quest.

“I am looking for an amulet. It is a ruby enchanted with an aged Dweomer spirit. I suspect it was used by nobles from this region some years ago. They reportedly embarked on a mission to stop the assertion of a great evil. Many things malevolent to the tranquility of the Fae Realm survived the ancient war. Rumor has described the emergence of an immortal Daemon, Gor. Perhaps you have heard of him...perhaps not.”

Xander took a moment to pause and gaze into the arching flames of the massive fire.

“I have knowledge of that Daemon!” Ram yelled.

The tinker stood up among the seated villagers and addressed the cloaked southerner.

“The nobles you speak of were Hedrick's parents. They placed the young Dweomer under my tutelage when they departed on their journey to destroy the tyrant, Gor. He has sought to usurp the magical energy of these woods for several generations. He was among many entities who benefitted from the power vacuum generated at the close of the ancient war.”

Hedrick was stunned. He remembered his parents had left under mysterious guises when he was young. They had been close with Ram but neither they nor his uncle had disclosed much information as to the nature of their disappearance.

“I suspect that Lord Harold and Lady Hathaway fell to ill magic in their mission to eliminate Gor and retrieve the talisman of the Ashgar Forest,” Ram added.

“That is unfortunate, Ram,” Xander replied. “It is clear that Gor, the Daemon, is intent on conquering this realm for his own wiles. We Dweomers must adjust to this impending peril.

“Listen to me, good people. It is no longer safe here. The troglodytes are abounding and are soon to be here in greater numbers. This village is lying in the wake of an agenda of evil. All of you must pack what belongings you can carry and depart from this settlement despite the storm.

“I'm sorry but the welfare of you and your children demands the highest priority. We must seek shelter and protection. I recommend Lord Aquiline's castle. He is an honorable noble and will take heed to the desperate nature of your predicament. There are soldiers there, too, and they will prepare themselves for a siege in the event of a troglodyte invasion.

“What say you, brave people?”

An elderly, bearded Dweomer, dressed in flowing, brown robes rose from the group and walked over to stand next to Xander.

“I am Archon,” he growled. “I am the seer of Dweomer Village and have dreamed of this night on several occasions. I agree with your assessment of our situation, southerner.

“We are truly no longer secure in this neck of the Ashgar Forest. We will hearken your counsel and journey to Lord Aquiline's stronghold. We residents of Dweomer Village will find sanctuary there and legitimate arms with which to defend ourselves.

“My people, let us make the necessary preparations for our exodus expeditiously. We leave Dweomer Village tonight!”

The Dweomers grumbled and sighed in agreement. They were reluctant to leave their home of so many years but none of them wanted to linger and repeat the violent experience at Ram's workshop earlier that evening.

Xander's meeting was over. Hedrick hastened to help his fellow villagers to pack their horses and load their wagons. Women and children wept, not knowing what would become of them. Dogs and goats howled and bleated, respectively, as they were tethered to their owners' mounts. Cattle lowed and bellowed as they were pulled from their stables but not to pasture.

Archon directed the people of his settlement to form a ring around the bonfire. Their wagons were loaded and the Dweomers stared out at their homes with teary eyes. No one knew if or when they would see their community again.

“Onward, my friends!” cried the seer. “We will take the forest road. Light the torches. If the troglodytes attack we will defend ourselves.”

Hedrick sat next to Ram on the tinker's wagon. What devices and experiments that weren't destroyed by the marauders were stored away in barrels and crates next to staples and water skins.

Xander rode a dappled mare next to Archon. The two wizards chatted tersely among themselves as the convoy uncurled from around the fire. The entourage moved in a steady queue into the thick trees of the Ashgar Forest.

The branches and canopy of the pines and oaks formed eerie, writhing shapes in the flickering light of the travelers' torches.

Archon, in expectation of a bottleneck at Lord Aquiline's castle, sent a vanguard to the noble's stronghold. They brought word of the events that had taken place in Ram's laboratory and the decision of the villagers to venture to his domicile upon Xander's information.

The Dweomers traveled through the night. The rain subsided but the lightning and thunder remained. The cries of owls and ravens reverberated through the underbrush, verifying the untamed spirit of the wilderness.

Lord Aquiline was an active and outgoing noble. Upon the arrival of Archon's vanguard and the message of the villagers the knight responded immediately. The mustached, middle-aged Lord ordered a garrison to accompany him to the forest road so that he might meet and protect the traveling convoy as soon as possible.

By dawn the Dweomers reached the outskirts of Aquiline's land. The Ashgar Forest dwindled in size and magnitude. The moon shone through the dissipating clouds and the thunder and lightning grew sporadic and distant.

“Hedrick, tell me what you see,” Ram queried. “Your eyes are younger than mine and are keen.”

“ We have left the forest primeval, uncle. This brush land belongs to Lord Aquiline. There is no sign of troglodytes in our midst. If all goes well we will be in the bosom of Aquiline's protection in a matter of hours.”

“Oh, good, nephew. Thank you for painting a picture for me,” answered the tinker of Dweomer Village.

Lord Aquiline and his people were not Dweomers. They were Portogans. These settlers were taller and more muscular than the forest folk. The Portogans didn't have pointed ears and slanted eyes like Hedrick and Ram. They were accustomed to trade with a variety of races and cities throughout the Fae Realm.

It was not uncommon for Lord Aquiline to employ his considerable military resources to protect outlying villages and spice caravans. The land was at times bereft with hostiles ranging from intrusive troglodytes to bullying goblin-men.

Lord Aquiline rode his Clydesdale warhorse at the head of his garrison. He was a firm yet compassionate leader and was held in good reputation among the Portogans. He indulged his vanity only so far as to grow out his auburn mustache. This he wore in two, long pleats which hung down past his angular chin. Aquiline had dark eyes and he kept his curled locks groomed with scented oil as was the custom of his culture.

A pair of knights carried standards at the side of their leader. The cloth banners were purple and bore the likenesses of dueling unicorns, the mythological mascots of the Portogans. All of Aquiline's soldiers wore chain mail which glistened in the early morning light. The armor covered their torsos and arms to extend in folds over their booted legs. The steeds of the knights trotted in a fancy, staggered gait which was an indication of the discipline and training of horse and rider alike.

Lord Aquiline spied the entourage of Dweomers as it continued to emerge in a serpentine queue from the Ashgar Forest. The leader of the Portogans was energized to see Archon's message come to fruition. He spurred his mount into a gallop and rode to the head of the convoy of evacuees. Archon and Xander raised their hands to greet the arrival of the noble knight.

“Salutations, Aquiline,” declared Archon. “I take it that you received my request. How fare things for the Portogans?”

“Quite well, Archon,” answered the curly-haired Lord. “I understand the Dweomers have run into a bit of trouble in the Ashgar Forest.”

The brown-cloaked wizard leaned over on his horse and took the knight in a chivalric embrace. Aquiline also exchanged pleasantries with Xander.

“Yes, that is the truth, my friend. The troglodytes are on a rampage of some kind and attacked some of my villagers last night. They claimed to be seeking a magical artifact. It is an amulet, if I understand correctly,” Archon said.

“Indeed, it is the talisman of the Ashgar Forest,” interjected Xander. “I seek it as well, upon the counsel of my guild of mages, The Hand.”

“That is impressive, southerner,” answered Aquiline. “It must be a powerful object to be sought by so many. Secrets are fleeting in these parts. I advise you to be cautious in your quest. Many magical forces are not meant to be coerced by mortal designs.”

“I agree, Lord Aquiline,” replied the green-cloaked mage. “Unfortunately the amulet vanished some years ago in an undertaking to destroy a hostile Daemon, Gor, who acquired power from the internecine conflicts of the War of the Ancients.

“Gor cannot be left with the Ashgar talisman,” Xander continued. “He is reckless and evil and would do nought but harness the energy of the Dweomer spirit it contains for conquest and tyranny. Chaos has already come to these peace-loving Dweomers. I suspect that Gor holds a personal grudge against their race. Two Dweomer nobles attempted to use the amulet to destroy him. They must have fallen victim to his insatiable ire and, now, both their whereabouts and that of the amulet they bore are enigma.”

Hedrick and Ram reached the cluster of mounted riders at the head of the traveling group.

“Harold and Hathaway were my parents. As Xander says, they sought to defeat Gor but must have been thwarted. I miss them dearly and am grateful to my uncle, Ram, for taking me under his wing in their absence.

“Please, Lord Aquiline, something must be done to stop Gor and his minions.”

“Easy, young Dweomer,” chuckled the Portogan Lord. “I have quite a bit of responsibility on my hands, as you can see. Your people are in imminent need of food, shelter and protection. Please allow me to tend to their needs before engaging on your magical quest.”

“I am in your debt, Aquiline,” Archon intoned. “The position of my people in the forest was untenable. It is true that we are at your disposal for none of us know when the marauding lizards may again attempt to assail us.”

“Very well,” replied Lord Aquiline. “Let's keep this convoy moving.

“Follow us, good Dweomers! You are guests of the Portogans until such time as we get to the bottom of the dilemma at hand. You will find sustenance and safety in the courtyard of my modest stronghold. Onward, my friends!”

Lord Aquiline turned his garrison to follow the forest road back to the castle. Ram and the other travelers urged their horses and livestock along the earthen path. They reached Aquiline's fortress by midday.

All of the Dweomers were drained both physically and emotionally by the sudden escape from their village. They parked their wagons in the sizable courtyard marketplace of the fortress. They tethered their animals where they could and lounged haphazardly in the shade of a well-manicured grove of apple trees. They ate dried food and drank water from the communal fountain. Dweomer and Portogan children played on the cobblestones as the adults chatted in worried tones.

Archon spoke in depth with Lord Aquiline and his court. He returned to the quadrant of the stronghold to check on the welfare of the apprehensive forest folk. The brown-cloaked mage paused to speak with Ram and Hedrick as he made his rounds.

“Ram, Hedrick, it is good to see you. There is going to be a meeting tonight in Lord Aquiline's dining hall. You are both invited. The Portogans are intrigued by the events that have taken place of late. They await your story and perspective on the troglodyte attack. I must be on my way but look forward to seeing you with Aquiline tonight.”

Despite the tragedy of the evacuation of his home Hedrick fought hard to conceal his excitement over his upcoming meeting with the Portogans. He had an adventurous, inquisitive soul and enjoyed seeing new faces and making friends.

“Don your best jerkin, Hedrick,” said Ram. “You want to make a good impression on Lord Aquiline's court. I'm sure that all eyes will be on you for your story of our struggle.”

“Yes, uncle,” Hedrick responded.

The young Dweomer opened his travel chest and put on his finest leather attire. In a matter of hours he headed into the castle proper.

Aquiline's castle was an architectural marvel. Stone-cutters and masons had labored for decades to assemble the ornate, Gothic towers and ramparts. Falcons and pigeons populated an elaborate aviary that was used to send messages and correspondence to the farthest reaches of the Fae Realm.

A bell tower notified the surrounding countryside of important events and times to initiate and complete the seasonal harvests. At the front of the castle keep was a massive clock, the mechanical workings of which Ram had found captivating. The tinker, upon the permission of the official timekeeper, made quick sketches of the assemblage of gears, weights, springs and pulleys that kept the giant timepiece functioning.

The guards let Hedrick pass through the broad doors of the keep and the Dweomer marched up the steps to the dining hall. The spacious chamber was filled with lively male and female Portogans. Large cuts of meat sizzled on spits as they rotated over the roaring, central brazier. Jesters and minstrels entertained the audience as they dined on Lord Aquiline's sumptuous board of fair.

The chamber was decorated with ancient tapestries which Hedrick ogled with fascination. The vaulted ceiling above was a testament to the constructive mastery of its builders.

This is the most sophisticated architecture I've seen, thought Ram's nephew. I wonder if there are similar castles in the other cities of the world.

“Oyez, oyez!” cried a herald. “Please welcome your Lord Aquiline and the Lady Rosalia!”

Everyone stopped what they were doing and rose to their feet to applaud the entrance of their leader and his wife.

“Thank all of you!” bellowed Aquiline, who had traded his chain mail for a fashionable jacket and breeches.

“Please, enjoy yourselves and be seated. I must confer with our new guests.”

The Lord and Lady, who was quite beautiful and had flowing, dark hair, sat at the middle dining table next to Archon and Xander.

Aquiline caught Hedrick's eye and gestured for him to approach. The Lord shook the Dweomer's hand robustly and introduced him to the Lady of the castle.

“Hedrick, meet my wife, Rosalia.”

The Dweomer took the pretty Portogan Lady's hand and genuflected briefly. He was nervous in such company and his cheeks flared an uncomfortable red.

“Hello, Hedrick,” said Rosalia. “I've heard much about you. We look forward to listening to your account of the troglodyte attack on Dweomer Village.”

“I'm honored, my Lady,” Hedrick replied.

He took a seat at the table next to Xander.

“If you please, Xander,” Aquiline asked. “Reiterate your knowledge of the Ashgar talisman for my court. All of us are interested in the security of the Fae Realm.”

“By all means, Lord Aquiline,” answered the southern mage.

The green-cloaked Dweomer stood by the now dwindling cook fire and cleared his throat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, with your permission I will disclose the details of an unfortunate series of events that has taken place relatively recently, since the close of the War of the Ancients, in fact.

“It has come to the understanding of The Hand, my guild, that the arcane entity, the Daemon, Gor, has plotted to drain the spiritual reserves of the Ashgar Forest. He is malicious and hostile and, I fear, is now directing the troglodyte hordes to pillage on his behalf...”

A gut-wrenching boom shook the foundation of Lord Aquiline's castle. The people in attendance gasped and shrieked in fear. The Lord, Lady and others rose to their feet. Soldiers and knights drew their swords and stepped forward to protect their leader.

“Aquiline, what is going on?”

Rosalia embraced her husband with apprehension.

“Rargh! Xander, you fool!”

A guttural, disembodied voice echoed over the dining hall.

“The amulet is mine! You will not take my prize from me nor stop my acquisition of the Fae Realm!”

A giant, translucent, Daemonic image appeared before the crowd. It was Gor. His eyes were devoid of irises and his horned head turned to stare at the southerner.

“You will pay for your folly. My troglodytes are upon you, now. Surrender or die. I will not tolerate the loss of the Dweomer spirit within me. It affords me vision and power, neither of which will I divest to you.”

The Portogan Lord drew his sword and pointed it at the shimmering illusion.

“We will not surrender, Gor!” yelled Lord Aquiline. “You have a fight on your hands!”

“As you wish, stubborn Portogan. You will not live to regret your insolence. My troglodytes, kill them!”

The wavering likeness of the Daemon vanished, leaving the residents and visitors to the castle alone in the dining hall. An anxious guard hustled into the hushed chamber and addressed Lord Aquiline.

“My Lord, the troglodytes have massed outside the city walls. They are joined by a battalion of goblin-men. They have owl-bears and displacer beasts in their number. An assault on our Portogan settlement has commenced. What are you orders?”

“Alert the knights and subordinate troops. Prepare this castle for an all-out siege. We will not tread softly into the coming night.

“Fire the braziers and put the oil into place. Arm the bolt throwers and catapults. Set a rotating watch of marksmen on the ramparts. Have them loose their arrows at any assailants that venture within range. This stronghold has learned much from the War of the Ancients and will not surrender to a handful of lizards and carnivores.”

“Yes, Sir,” answered the guard.

He saluted his commander and turned to convey the orders to the proper channels.

Lady Rosalia gripped her husband's arm and spoke to him.

“Aquiline, you must hasten to the aviary. There you can send word of our predicament to the neighboring cities of the Fae Realm via carrier pigeon. There are Portogan ships on the coast nearby. They will assuredly send troops to our aid if they learn of this engagement.”

“Your counsel if sound, beloved,” Aquiline responded. “I will go to the aviary at once. I will write to Captain Jairo, requesting support from his forces at sea. In turn I will petition Avalon and Obelix. Those cities have long proven allies of the Portogans and will certainly send reinforcements when they learn of this impending siege.

“Take care, my wife,” the Lord cautioned. “I would have you stay clear of harm's reach. Await me in our bedchamber under armed guard. I know you are an able fencer but would not sacrifice your martial talents to this petty skirmish at any cost. Keep a watchful eye on our young children and sing them a song for me. This foolishness will be over soon, I'm sure.”

“So be it,” answered Lady Rosalia.

The Lord of the Portogan castle returned his wife's grasp and gave her a quick kiss. The two nobles parted, both accompanied by soldiers with swords drawn and shields at the ready.



* * * * *

Hedrick was astounded by the events that had taken place in the dining hall.

I am impressed by Lord Aquiline's cool leadership in this time of crisis, he thought. I must get a glimpse of the troglodyte forces. Archon and Xander are busy making battle plans. Uncle Ram is tending to the welfare of the Dweomer villagers in the courtyard below. I guess its up to me to assess the resources of the enemy. As Uncle Ram said, I have keen eyesight.

The youthful Dweomer had been given a chain mail tunic by Lord Aquiline. He had also made a gift of a fine, Portogan short-sword. This the assistant tinker kept in a leather scabbard hung from his belt. In addition Hedrick donned a pair of ox-hide gauntlets and a steel helmet. Perhaps due to the shock of the previous night's attack he was unsure that the various defenders of the castle would succeed in their efforts to repel the reptilian invaders and their cohorts.

The sun hung low and crimson in the horizon beyond Lord Aquiline's stronghold. Hedrick glanced at the dark outlines of the Gothic towers as pigeons and falcons flew to and from the high structure of the aviary.

The castle bells tolled repeatedly, announcing the impending nightfall as well as petitioning support from outlying settlements.

Portogan soldiers lit rows of sconces along the ramparts so that their archers and captains could follow the movements of the enemy once the sun had set.

Hedrick found an observation point in an archer's tower at one of the many corners of the military edifice. He crouched in the topmost stockroom and looked out through a narrow window. The opening was just wide enough to shoot arrows from a longbow or bolts from a crossbow. The young Dweomer adult had neither of these but was satisfied to watch and wait until the battle began.

As soon as twilight was upon them a band of goblin-men rode horses to the front of the troglodyte horde surrounding the fortress. They carried blazing torches and lifted hollow sheep's horns to their lips. The swarthy, fanged humanoids blew a united tone of attack.

As before the troglodytes called out a nerve-wracking battle cry as they stormed the stronghold. Several battalions had prepared siege ladders and scaffolding to scale the walls. Other forces had tied an oak trunk to rock-laden wagons to function as a battering ram. This they pushed from three sides and drove repeatedly against the lowered portcullis.

It was then that Lord Aquiline, dressed in full military regalia, gave the order to empty the cauldrons of boiling oil from above. Cascades of hot liquid fell from crucial points around the castle perimeter. Numerous troglodytes and goblin-men were smitten by the defensive tactic. They screamed in pain and scrambled to shirk their steaming armor and scalding helmets.

Hedrick heard a rally of cheers from the Portogan soldiers atop the besieged fortress. Many of their startled opponents fled from the heat of the boiling oil and returned to the fold of the troglodyte horde.

The outcome of the conflict at the portcullis was not so one-sided. The aggressive agents of Gor drove their battering ram into the bolted, iron grid relentlessly. A dozen of the armed invaders fell to the arrows of Lord Aquiline's marksmen but still they pushed on.

Other marauders took the opportunity to hoist their ladders and scaffolding against the walls. Knights and soldiers of various ranks hurried to topple what structures they could but the majority of them allowed scores of reptilian humanoids to scale their objective. A tense melee ensued on the ramparts.

Hedrick drew his sword.

I must help my friends. It is no use dallying here.

The Dweomer ran from his viewpoint in the stockroom and quickly descended a flight of stairs to the nearest rampart.

A thundering crash echoed over the battle.

“The gate is compromised! Protect the courtyard! Our Dweomer cousins need help!” hollered Lord Aquiline.

Before he could enter the fray atop the wall Hedrick was chilled by the commander's warning. He looked down, into the quadrant, and saw a spearhead of elite troglodyte militia rush into the crowded network of wagons and tents left by his people.

Suddenly Ram, Xander and Archon emerged from a stable at the opposite end of the sometime marketplace. They were accompanied by a motley band of Dweomers and Portogans intent on protecting their lives and property.

Ram had again armed himself with his experimental blunderbuss. This he fired directly at the charging mass, dropping three of the brigands with spreading shot.

Xander again uttered his practiced spell, gesturing with his hands.

“Ballust!”

His flaming missile struck its mark, this time blowing the troglodyte to bits of pulp.

Archon was incensed by both the loss of his village and this new attack on his people. He enchanted a magic of his own device.

“Zinder!”

A pair of wyverns appeared over the shoulders of the aged seer. They screeched with rage and spat a series of acrid flames at the intruders.

I've seen enough, thought Hedrick.

The Dweomer wielded his sword over his head and unleashed a war cry of his own.

“For my parents!”

He ran the nearest reptilian through and parried the blade of a second. Hedrick then sidestepped and stabbed the invader a fearsome cut through the left shoulder. As the troglodyte fell Hedrick turned to contend with a third.

Lord Aquiline spotted the courageous Dweomer from a neighboring battlement.

“I want five of you reserves to go to that fighter. He is under my protection.”

The Portogan soldiers did as ordered and drew their swords. They rushed into the melee.

Ram swung his expended blunderbuss like a club. There was no time to reload the cumbersome weapon. He knocked several troglodytes and goblin-men lifeless.

Xander maintained his volley of fireballs.

Archon's wyverns flapped their membranous wings as they hovered over the brown-cloaked mage's shoulders. The young dragons continued to bombard what enemy forces that lingered in the courtyard with blasts of acrid flame.

On the ramparts the fight intensified. Hedrick teamed up with Aquiline's reserve. They hewed at the marauders wholeheartedly and vanquished those that had scaled the wall at that location.

“The tide is turning, my friends!” offered Lord Aquiline. “Let us double our efforts and free this castle of this accursed siege once and for all!”

“Yes, Lord!” replied the fighters.

They did as their leader commanded and entered the fight with renewed vigor.



* * * * *

Lady Rosalia meditated in her bedchamber within the castle keep. She paused to address her two, young children, a boy and girl.

“I hope all fares well for your father.”

The yells and sounds of intense conflict reverberated through the hallway outside the locked door.

Rosalia spoke to Marta, her lady-in-waiting.

“Marta, please take the children into the antechamber and bar the door. Do not come out until I give word that it is safe.”

“Yes, my Lady,” answered the trusted servant.

She did as her friend asked.

“Come on, kids. Let us play in the antechamber for a while.”

Lady Rosalia rose to her feet as the raucous noise of battle grew louder and seemingly more desperate. She tied her hair in a hasty braid at her back and opened the armoir. Aquiline's spouse took out her fencing uniform and put it on. She drew her foil from where it hung on hooks at the back of the large cabinet.

Voices passed through the door to the bedchamber, as did the sound of footfalls and swords being pulled from their scabbards.

“Protect Lady Rosalia at all costs. To arms, men! Go back, foul lizards!”

Rosalia trembled with concern as the clash of steel upon steel seemed to emanate from just outside the bedchamber. Her worry increased as she heard groans of pain and then silence. Guttural mutterings next resonated through the door. Lady Rosalia clutched her foil in a practiced stance.

At once a series of blows pounded on the sealed portal. The sturdy oak began to chip and shatter in a flurry of splinters as someone or something hacked at it from the opposite side. In a thundering cacophony the door was ripped apart. Troglodyte hands reached in and pulled the defunct wood free of the hinges.

A pair of snarling, reptilian invaders leaped into Rosalia's bedchamber with swords drawn and bloody. Before the Lady of the castle was able to contend with them the air was filled with the scent of ozone and sulfur.

A feline displacer beast materialized in the middle of the room. It had slavering fangs and clawed at the fencer in a series of strikes.

Rosalia was startled, more surprised than scared, and quickly regained her composure.

Nothing comes between me and my children, she thought.

She targeted the creature at the nape of the neck and thrust in her glinting foil. The displacer beast howled in agony and fell dead to the side of the chamber. A pool of green blood formed on the rug under the carcass.

“Surrender or die, Portogan woman,” yelled one of the troglodytes.

The reptilian humanoid lunged at Rosalia with his sword. This she parried easily and rendered a counter with her weapon, piercing her adversary deep through the midriff.

The remaining troglodyte opted against a direct confrontation and made a mad dash for the door to the antechamber. This course of action angered the protective mother and she coldly ran the brigand through from behind. The invader passed away nearly instantly.

Lady Rosalia trotted to the compromised door and scanned the hallway in both directions. No one was to be seen other than three, dead Portogan guards who had fallen at their posts. The noble woman reentered her bedchamber and yelled to her lady-in-waiting.

“Marta, open the door. We must seek Aquiline. Our guards have been killed.”

After a moment the attendant slid the bar free and opened the portal. She stepped into the room with the two, small children at her side. Marta gasped at the unsightly cadavers and deceased displacer beast.

“What has happened, my Lady? What is that thing?”

“Never mind, Marta. We must be on our way. Come on, kids.”

Rosalia led her charges down the hall with her bloody foil in hand. They headed to Lord Aquiline's station on the ramparts.



* * * * *

Hedrick saw that the siege of the Portogan castle had reached a turning point.

Swordsmen and lancers finished off what troglodytes remained. At the ruptured portcullis they fought a trio of snapping owl-bears with spears and crossbows.

Those lizard soldiers and goblin-men that lived recognized that things were not going as they'd planned. The vast majority of them turned tail and fled to the comparative safety of the Ashgar Forest.

“We are victorious!” yelled Hedrick. “Congratulations, Lord Aquiline!”

“Thank you, brave Dweomer. You fought well this night. You have our gratitude.”

“It was nothing,” Hedrick smiled.

The mustached Lord grabbed him in a hearty embrace.

The Portogans and Dweomers cheered throughout the castle. The Lord met with his wife and children and hugged each of them. They descended from the ramparts and greeted Ram, Xander and Archon. The Dweomer evacuees were shaken by the violent experience but were unharmed.

Archon addressed the group. His wyverns had vanished at the end of the siege.

“Lord Aquiline and the rest of you, we must not sit on our laurels. The Daemon, Gor, has proven to be a formidable adversary and a nuisance to we Dweomers. He cannot be permitted to keep the talisman of the Ashgar Forest.

“What's more his demise, by any means, will benefit us all. The troglodytes and fell beasts which we vanquished here, tonight, are bound to return. They are bloodthirsty and reckless.

“I move that we assemble a traveling party set on locating Gor, wherever he may be, and retrieving the ruby amulet from him, living or dead.”

“That is more easily said than done, Archon,” replied Lord Aquiline. “As you mentioned, Gor's whereabouts are unknown and if we do find him he is virtually immortal. It will be no easy task to eliminate him from the Fae Realm permanently.”

“I have my suspicions,” said Xander. “My guild, The Hand, is more resourceful than you may know. We have agents deployed in many cities, with watchful eyes and open ears. There is bound to be intelligence in regard to the movements of such a conspicuous entity as Gor since the close of the War of the Ancients.

“Let me venture to the clandestine headquarters of my guild in the southern city of Obelix. I will confer with Roland, my superior. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he has clues to Gor's whereabouts.”

“That would be wise, Xander,” said Lord Aquiline. “I would accompany you, personally, but regret that I must attend to the tactical defense of my people...”

“I will go, Aquiline,” interjected Rosalia. “I will represent the Portogans on your behalf.”

“No, my love. Your place is here, with our children,” replied the Portogan.

“That is as I would have it, my Lord. Marta will take care of our heirs. My skills will be needed on this quest. I can fend for myself, as you know.”

“Of course. It is just that I'll miss you, I suppose,” said Aquiline.

“As I you, Aquiline. This must be done, however, and I'm sure our family will be reunited soon.”

Rosalia gave her husband a kiss.

“So be it,” answered the worried Lord. “You have my blessing. Speak with this Roland in my stead. He will help us if he is able.”

“Lord Aquiline, I have a favor to ask of you,” Archon stated.

“Yes, friend wizard,” the Lord answered.

Protect my Dweomers in my absence. My abilities will be needed in this endeavor if it is to succeed.”

“As will mine,” said Ram. “I have many tools and devices. Perhaps we will use them to extract the amulet from Gor's body, that is, once he is located and subdued.”

“Very well, Archon and Ram,” responded Aquiline. “You will be much needed on this mission. Take what supplies and horses you need. I will send Rosalia with an elite garrison of Portogan knights. They will be hand-picked, I assure you.”

He glanced at Rosalia with a protective expression.

“Get some rest, tonight. You all should conserve your energy while you can. None of us know what challenges this adventure holds in store for you.”

The members of the traveling party took Lord Aquiline up on his word and rested in spots throughout the castle under the light of the moon and stars. The sounds of ravens and toads filled the air.











































CHAPTER TWO



Upon the dawn the Portogan castle bustled with activity. Smiths hammered strips of iron to repair the portcullis. Cooks prepared meals for the considerable population of Dweomers encamped in the courtyard. Minstrels and troubadours kept the children entertained with lutes and marionettes.

Hedrick and Ram bade farewell to their many Dweomer friends. Lady Rosalia did the same with her Portogan subjects. All of the travelers mounted horses and exited the castle with the escort of knights Aquiline had selected. By midday they had passed beyond the farmland and entered the wild lands that preceded the Ashgar Forest.

“We should take the southern road,” Xander declared. “It is the fastest way into Obelix although it does cut through the forest primeval.”

“That is a risk we must take, my friend,” replied Archon. “Gor's forces are already on the move and we have little time before other settlements are attacked.”

“Very well,” said Xander. “Follow me.”

The green-cloaked Dweomer pushed his horse into a trot and led the adventurers along the earthen trail. They headed south and east.

As twilight fell the tall pines and oaks of Ashgar Forest rose on the horizon. The calls of owls and badgers reverberated over the looming canopy. Rather than set up camp the journeying fighters and magic users pushed on through the virtual tunnel formed by the southern road as it cut through the thick brush and trunks of the old-growth forest.

“These trees are ominous,” observed Lady Rosalia. “Archon, is there any way you can provide greater illumination for our horses? Our torches are not sufficient.”

The older seer pulled a gnarled staff from its housing alongside his saddle.

“By all means, my Lady,” Archon answered.

He enchanted a light spell.

“Luzus!”

The tip of the mage's staff acquired a ring of bright, golden light. This shone some distance around the band of travelers, providing substantial detail for the horses to discern the road ahead. The light also afforded the Portogan knights a greater degree of warning should some adversary emerge.

Hedrick saw unusual shapes, stationary and some distance apart, along the roadside.

“Uncle Ram, what are those forms? They look foreboding.”

“I'm not sure, nephew. Show me,” the tinker responded.

The middle-aged dabbler in metallurgy donned a set of spectacles as they neared one of the mysterious figures.

“Ah!” he cried. “That is a sigil. It was carved from stone, long ago, before the War of the Ancients. Those etchings are runes.”

“Can you read them, uncle? What does this sigil say?” Hedrick asked.

“Hmm...it documents an ancient battle. It transpired in these woods centuries ago. This stone is a memorial of sorts, dedicated to the wood elves that fell in the conflict. They fought to repel a mass of goblin-men intent on destroying this forest.”

Archon rode up to look at the sigil. He inspected the carved stone from his horse.

“There is magic that remains in that stone, my friends. It is dormant, now, but I would feign to bring harm to these trees and awaken it. We are not alone. I sense watchful eyes upon us from afar. Let us be about our business. The wood elves, said to protect this forest, are reclusive and xenophobic. They trust few outsiders. If they choose to appear we must be on our guard. Our trek to Obelix must not stop.”

The band moved on, along the southern forest road, without interruption, for several hours. The sun began to set and the journeyers set camp for the night. The Portogan knights built a modest cook-fire and fed the horses grain and water.

It was then that a scraggly voice wafted from the neighboring trees.

“Tee hee! I am the spirit of the Ashgar Forest! You must relinquish your weapons and goods to me if you wish to exit here alive! Act now or rest in peace, forever!”

“We will not do that, Ashgar spirit, if that's who you claim to be,” bellowed Archon. “We are here on legitimate business and will not be hindered by this foolishness.”

The Portogan soldiers began to draw their swords when Archon signaled them to desist.

“Very well. You'll be sorry!” yelled the voice.

Everyone present heard a tumultuous rustling deep in the underbrush. This quickly faded and became more distant.

“Never mind him,” grumbled Archon. “I expect our new-found friend will show himself when the time is right. Get some rest, all of you. We have a long way to go and little time to do it.”

The night passed without event and the band returned to the earthen path at the dawn.

Archon continued to employ his spell of illumination to light the way in the shadowy forest. The road twisted and turned through the ancient trees and was still marked by the occasional sigil.

The group continued on for some miles when they were halted by a sizable military force. They were an outfit of wood elves. The secretive humanoids were tall and thin and wore tight-fitting leather clothing. Each of them had pointed ears and angular eyes, similar to the more compact physiognomy of the Dweomers. Their skin was a dark olive and kept them hidden and camouflaged in the green and brown of the deep forest.

Some of the elves wielded curved swords and daggers while many of their group opted to train bows and arrows at the journeyers.

An elder elf, dressed in belted robes, stepped forward to address Archon and his companions.

“Welcome, foreigners! You have succeeded on impinging on our territory. I am Sindariel. I'm afraid we must ask you to accompany us to our citadel. Our leader, Vertix, wishes to meet with you promptly.

“Our spies have sent word of your approach for some days, now. You may keep your weapons. We know that you will not attempt to use them against us. Besides, this road only leads to our ambush. It is quite ingenious in its construction and you would surely meet your demise there if you were to continue on this route,” Sindariel chuckled.

“So be it, elf leader,” answered Archon. “Thank you for your warning. We will heed its message. I look forward to meeting with Vertix. I have questions of my own that he may be able to answer.”

“As do I,” added Xander. “The Hand has long studied artifacts and arcana rumored to have come from this place. Of late a certain talisman, laden with a Dweomer spirit, has arisen in concern by a number of races in the Fae Realm. It would be wise to bring this item to your leader's attention and request what information he may possess in regard to its formation and whereabouts.”

“By all means, adamant travelers,” replied Sindariel. “Let us be on our way. My elf scouts will show you the safe path.”

As they traveled through the seemingly unmarked trail, under the guidance of the wood elves, one of the scouts commented on the features of the Dweomers in the group.

“We are cousins. You are Dweomers from the northern woods. We were formed by like magics long ago. These trees are powerful beyond words, if you take time to hearken them, that is.”

“I am Hedrick,” replied the Dweomer. “My kindred here are Ram, Xander and Archon. My people were forced to flee our village due to a troglodyte attack and thus sought the protection of the neighboring Portogan Lord whose Lady and knights now accompany us on our quest.”

“It's nice to meet you, cousin,” answered the wood elf. “I am Bluefox.”

The citadel of the wood elves was immense yet had been built to meld with the treeline of the old-growth forest. Generations of elves had collaborated to construct a series of gradated platforms around the trees themselves.

A network of suspension bridges connected the platforms which, in turn, supported structures ranging from modest longhouses to temples and libraries. A pair of rivers flowed through the trees nearby, providing the aged citadel with yet a greater degree of security.

Upon the recommendation of Sindariel the traveling party dismounted after fording the shallows of the nearest river. They guided their loyal steeds and pack-horses to a set of large elevators. These the wood elves lifted to high stables using the leverage of a complex series of gears, pulleys and counterweights.

Ram marveled at the feat of engineering and complimented Sindariel.

“Your architecture and mechanics incorporated within are astounding. If I live to see Dweomer Village rebuilt I will certainly author blueprints inspired by this place.”

“Thank you, Dweomer cousin,” said the elf commander. “I'm sure you'll enjoy perusing our extensive library and the opportunity to compare notes with Vertix, personally.”

The collection of travelers ascended into the network of buildings assembled among the canopy of giant oaks and pines. Under the guidance of Sindariel they crossed a number of guarded bridges and platforms to the principle temple of the wood elves.

It was a magnificent edifice. The place of contemplation and healing was the tallest structure in the citadel. It possessed several observation towers, topped with minarets.

Hedrick was again astonished by the design of the strange place. He looked up at the parapets and pointed, Gothic pinnacles in wonder.

A pair of robed wood elves withdrew their sabers and permitted Sindariel and the gathering of visitors to enter. The temple ceiling was arched and vaulted several hundred feet above the pews and council forums.

Vertix sat at the center of a crescent-shaped table which was occupied by over a dozen, male and female wood elves. They were clearly the elders of the community, for although known for their longevity, their faces were creased with age and hair lined with gray.

“Greetings, I am Vertix. Welcome to our humble citadel.”

He rose from his seat and came around the crescent table to greet the visitors personally. The leader of the wood elves was dressed in flowing, silver and green robes, stitched with runes. He had long, graying auburn hair and his angular eyes were marked with crow's feet.

“We have received word of your approach for some time. There is indeed some malicious work afoot. I see that you have a Portogan Lady in your midst. I take it that you have allied yourselves with the Portogans in your imminent quest.”

“That is the case, Vertix,” answered Archon. “What's more my people, the residents of Dweomer Village, were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in Lord Aquiline's castle. Aquiline's spouse, the Lady Rosalia, has journeyed with us and represents the interests of her people, as does her formidable escort.”

“That is good,” answered Vertix. “You and your soldiers are welcome, Lady Rosalia. It is beneficial to have contact with the Portogans once again. We will document this meeting in our historical tomes.”

“Thank you, kind Vertix,” replied Lady Rosalia.

Xander next spoke to the council of wood elves.

“My name is Xander. I am a member of the clandestine guild of mages known as The Hand. I have been directed to seek an amulet. It is rumored to contain a Dweomer spirit and is quite powerful.

“I suspect it was taken by a malevolent entity, Gor, some years ago and that he has been harnessing it to drive troglodytes and other arcane beasts against the gentle people of the Fae Realm.”

“I see, Xander,” Vertix answered. “I have heard of The Hand. It is an ambitious guild and has agents in many of the great cities of our realm. To quell your curiosity, the Ashgar talisman indeed possesses a Dweomer spirit. I put it there.

“It was the dawn of what would come to be known as the War of the Ancients. We elves were united with other races to repel a variety of evil forces over the course of several campaigns. Dragons rose from the earth and descended from the sky. Magic of various persuasions was abounding. We were in desperate need to turn the denizens of the nether gods.

Vertix next addressed Hedrick.

“Protos, a young Dweomer, like you, Hedrick, volunteered to have me place his spirit in a ruby talisman. It was to be used to power a daemon sword, Tarus. The hostile daemons and dragons roamed uninhibited across the land. It was the least I could do to transmute Protos' spirit into the hilt of the sword.

“Your father, Lord Harold took Tarsus into his employ over several campaigns, using it to eliminate tyrannical daemons and creatures of equally unsavory alignment. Your mother, Lady Hathaway was given an enchanted bow and quiver assembled here in this citadel. She, too, used it to enforce lawful tenets among the chaotic entities flooding from the depths of the earth.

“At last your parents left this place to parts unknown to us. They sought Gor, a lingering daemon once held in favor by Daizan, a nether god. As far as I know they did not succeed in defeating Gor for they did not return to this place or the home of you Dweomers.

“Hence Tarsus is missing along with the Ashgar talisman it contains. I am sorry, visitors, that I do not know of it's or Gor's whereabouts. I would aid you on your quest, though.

“This council, under my recommendation, has chosen to send a pair of our wood elves to accompany you. You have already met. Their names are Sindariel and Bluefox. They are young, compared to we elders, but are experienced in the ways of combat and healing.

“Journey, under the guidance of these wood elves, beyond the Ashgar Forest. Seek intelligence from The Hand under Roland in Obelix. The agents of The Hand are known to be sharp witnesses and quick to distribute the latest information among their number. Roland knows much, I suspect. Go to him. We will await your eventual return and perhaps that of Tarsus as well. May the Fates be with you.”

“Thank you, Vertix,” Archon responded. “You are indeed wise and offer good counsel. We will gladly accept your two wood elves into our group. I'm sure that they will prove quite resourceful. This party will give its all to ensure their safety and bring them back to you healthy and spry once we have retrieved the Ashgar talisman. We will meet again.”

Archon embraced Vertix and shook hands with the members of the wood elf council. The band of travelers exited the elaborate temple and retraced their steps to the high stable where their steeds and pack-horses rested.

“Alas, I wish there were time to review the scrolls and records in the massive library of this citadel,” Ram sighed. “We must move on, however. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to visit this place in greater depth under different circumstances.”

The journeyers collected their horses and descended with them in the set of elevators to the forest floor. They were accompanied by Sindariel and Bluefox. Both of the elves appeared anxious to be on the road to the east and petition The Hand in Obelix.

The band of fighters followed a different, narrow path under the direction of Sindariel. The towers of the citadel were soon out of sight as the thick growth of the Ashgar Forest pushed in from all sides. One of the two rivers encountered at the stronghold of the wood elves remained in earshot. The sound of torrents moving over rocks emanated from the northern border of the trail.

As they ventured onward the group again heard a coarse voice as it spoke in a high pitch from the nearby underbrush.

“Tee hee! This is your last chance, reckless adventurers. Your weapons and armor are now the property of me, the spirit of the Ashgar Forest.”

“Ah, I see you've met The Rogue,” said Bluefox.

The wood elf spoke to Hedrick as he rode near.

“Don't worry, he's harmless.”

“Harmless? I am not. I am the custodian of these woods and all that is in it.”

A thin figure strode into view from the underbrush. He was the oldest Dweomer that Hedrick had seen. His head was bald except for a ring of long, white hair around the back. The Rogue's skin was wrinkled from ages of exposure to the elements. He was dressed in tattered leather and held a walking stick.

“Since your weapons and armor are already mine I will allow you to use them for now. Let us be on our way. The sun is soon to set,” said The Rogue.

“Now, hold on a minute,” grumbled Ram. “Who are you, aged one? Have we met?”

“Not in this lifetime, sir, but I am glad to make your acquaintance. Call me Rogue, if you will. I can prove quite useful on your quest to eliminate Gor and retrieve the Ashgar talisman.”

“How do you know that?” Xander demanded.

“That's simple. I overheard you speaking among yourselves as you passed through my woods.”

“Alright, Rogue,” interjected Sindariel. “I'll vouch for you. You have proven to be of salient reconnaissance to we wood elves in the past. We can use you as a scout. It has been a mystery why you choose not to live amid your Dweomer kindred but that is your choice. Let us dally here no longer. We have much ground to cover before nightfall.”

“It's nice to meet you, Rogue,” said Lady Rosalia.

She brought him a Portogan pony and extended the reins to his knobby hands.

The travelers moved on under the guidance of Archon's continuing enchantment of illumination. They passed several miles through the massive oaks and pines and set up camp as the old-growth flora began to thin.

The Portogan knights set a rotating watch around the cook-fire and the adventurers slept eagerly, spent by the events of the past day.

Upon the dawn the various members of the group downed a quick breakfast and set themselves again under Sindariel's guidance. The trees continued to thin and they soon exited from the forest primeval.

“These are the eastern foothills of Obelix,” declared Sindariel. “We are making good time.”

“Lord Aquiline's pigeons are sure to have brought word of the recent conflicts to the city by now,” observed Lady Rosalia. “I hope all fares well for my husband and people in our castle.”

“I'm sure they're fine, fair Lady,” replied Archon. “Aquiline is a resourceful and adept tactical commander and would feign to be taken by surprise by the troglodytes once more. He will be cautious and watchful and, I'm sure, continues to await your speedy return.”

“Thank you, Archon,” said Rosalia. “You are kind.”

The foothills of Obelix soon leveled and became farmland that was well maintained and irrigated. Cattle and horses grazed casually in pastures and farmers looked up at the motley group as they tended their crops and livestock.

“It is evident that Gor's forces have not yet infiltrated the land east of the Ashgar Forest,” Hedrick observed. “Perhaps this provides a clue to his location.”

“That is plausible, Hedrick,” answered Xander. “Before we delve into theories, let us consult with Roland. He is sure to possess word of our approach and would have us arrive as soon as we are able. I miss the company of my superior and fellow mages. It will be good to visit my headquarters once again.”

The party continued on and reached the outskirts of the great city of Obelix. It was populated by a variety of races ranging from Dweomers and Portogans to wood elves and anthromorphs.

A deep river flowed through the city. This allowed for additional trade and commerce with neighboring settlements.

Obelix had stood for centuries and had survived numerous sieges and occupations. The city's architecture reflected its colorful history and thus held structures built in greatly differing styles and motifs.

The travelers reached the city walls and passed through the bustling gates. Herdsmen pushed sheep and goats to the side of the narrow street so that the mounted adventurers could proceed to the center of the settlement.

Hedrick ogled various fountains built at the intersections of major avenues. Many included elaborate statues and sculptures that the young Dweomer found inspiring.

“As you know, my friends, I am familiar with this city,” said Xander. “Follow my lead and I will guide you to my headquarters.”

The journeyers complied and formed a queue behind Xander's mount. They rode for another mile, passing many vendors who marketed their wares ranging from fruits and vegetables to fine garments and weapons.

“Uncle Ram, are those people anthromorphs?” Hedrick queried. “I have not seen their kind before.”

The Dweomer directed his gaze at a family of wolf-folk who strode hastily across their path.

“Yes, Hedrick. There are quite a few of them here. The anthromorphs are the same as the rest of us. Many are lawful but a few are hostile. They have a haven here and have fit in to this community quite well.”

At last the band reached Xander's headquarters. It was a sturdy tavern with a sign that read, “The Howling Wolf.”

The structure was not ostentatious. Xander signaled his companions to dismount and they tethered their steeds to the hitching post before entering.

They walked into a large dining hall with a roaring fire in a ring of stones at the center. There were patrons of various races in attendance but all of them chatted quietly among themselves and did not pay the colorful group of arrivals much attention.

“Welcome, visitors,” declared the robust barkeep from the counter. “What'll you have?”

“Hello, Torrez. It's me, Xander. I've been away some months. Please bring a platter of meat and hearth bread for my companions. We have business with Roland.”

“Ah, Xander, I recognize you, now. Roland, you say? Hmm...he's not an easy one to find. Is your business urgent?”

“Yes, I'm afraid,” answered the agent of The Hand. “Who is in charge?”

“Cicatrix has been running things in Roland's absence. Perhaps you should meet with him. I'll bring your food to you, shortly. Have your friends enter the passage.”

“Please, my friends,” Torrez beckoned to the group of visitors. “Come this way. I know you're hungry. You'll have sustenance soon.”

The barkeep kicked a secret switch under his counter, causing a hidden door to open behind him. Xander entered the dark passage discretely as did the rest of the band. They all heard a loud click as Torrez locked the door behind them.

It was dark and Archon again enchanted his light spell.

“Luzus!”

Illumination flared from the top of his gnarled staff, bringing great detail to the wooden panels of the clandestine hall. The motley band marched on, cautiously, behind Xander.

At last they reached a double door, lit by flaming sconces. There were no guards and Xander knocked on the polished oak surface.

A gruff voice answered.

“Enter, Xander. We have been expecting you.”

The member of The Hand did as asked and turned the knob. He passed within and gestured for the group to follow.

The band of travelers found themselves in a spacious council chamber limned with torches and tapestries embroidered with the insignia of a red hand. The room was oval in shape and housed a large, ovoid, oak table surrounded by chairs. Most of the seats were empty but a pair of them at the table's head were occupied.

One member of Xander's organization was a large, lion anthromorph, whose face possessed a deep scar. His left eye had been wounded long ago and shone white in the light of the torches and Archon's staff. The other person in attendance was a female Dweomer, hooded and cloaked in burgundy. She was about the same age as Hedrick and stared at the group with curiosity.

“Hello, Cicatrix,” offered Xander. “It's been a long time since we last met. How fare things for The Hand?”

“As good as can be expected, Xander. Lord Aquiline's pigeons are fast. They sent word of your approach along with that of the Portogan Lady in our midst some days ago.

“Greetings, Rosalia. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. All is well with your castle, I assure you.”

“Thank you, Cicatrix,” answered the Portogan noble. “I appreciate that information.”

“Cicatrix, where is Roland? My friends and I are in dire need of his counsel.”

“I'm sorry, Xander. I don't know where Roland is. He departed from these headquarters some weeks ago in quite a hurry. As you know he is responsible for all the activities of The Hand and frequently vanishes without explanation.”

“I see,” replied the southern Dweomer. “Maybe you can help us. We seek the Daemon, Gor, a survivor of the War of the Ancients who has come to power of late. We believe he possesses an enchanted sword equipped with a potent talisman. This weapon, Tarsus, must be taken from him. If Gor is destroyed in the process that will be an added benefit. He is evil.”

“He killed my parents,” Hedrick interjected. “I seek retribution for this misdeed.”

“That is unfortunate, young Dweomer,” replied Cicatrix. “You have my sympathy.

“In answer to your question, Xander, I have heard of Tarsus. As you know, The Hand takes it upon itself to monitor the flux of magical forces and entities within the Fae Realm. Gor is known to us. His assertion of aggression is already documented in our extensive annals.

“The War of the Ancients is over and the dragons are gone. This does not mean that enmity and maliciousness has been eradicated. We must act to assist your cause. Gor has indeed gone too far. That is what Roland would want, I'm sure.

“The attack on Lord Aquiline's stronghold and Dweomer Village was unnecessary and excessive. I have researched this issue in expectation of your request.

“Seek Gor to the north. His fortress is hidden amid a wasteland of glaciers and ravines. There is no civilization there but his minions run rampant, training and building war machines in growing echelons. The area is known as The Desolation.”

“I have heard of that place,” answered Sindariel. “The elves battled many devious forces there in ancient times. It is a haven for untamed magic. It does not surprise me that Gor chose such a barren wilderness for his domain. No one in their right mind would venture there.”

“The Sea of Ice blocks the way as do the nations of Narzuk and Cantar,” grumbled The Rogue. “How will we negotiate passage through those wild and dangerous regions?”

“I don't know, Rogue,” replied Xander. “We must find a way, whatever the cost. The fate of our respective peoples depends on us. We are obligated to succeed.”

“Very well, Xander,” said Cicatrix. “I believe I have helped you as much as I am able. Don't give up on Roland. Our leader may appear at any time. Even I am amazed at his resourcefulness and subterfuge. He is an individual who can avoid detection like no other. That is, until he wishes otherwise.”

There was a knock on the door and Torrez entered with a large platter of steaming beef and hearth bread. The visitors dined quickly and thanked the tavern keeper for his hospitality.

Cicatrix again addressed the group.

“Go now and may the Fates be with you. My companion here is an adept apprentice of The Hand. Her name is Wren. She will guide you out of Obelix and assist you on your formidable quest.”

Cicatrix and Wren rose from their seats and shook hands with the visitors.

Wren greeted her traveling companions and directed them to an auxiliary passage. The hall was constructed of carved stone and the sound of running water was near as the band moved on.

In a matter of moments the group exited the hall and passed through a low door into a narrow alley. They retrieved their horses and entered the network of streets of Obelix.

Wren quickly demonstrated her knowledge of the city to the travelers. She showed them a fast, discrete path to the gates. Dusk was beginning to fall and the few city dwellers that remained outdoors took little notice of the departing group.

The journeyers were keen on generating distance between themselves and the substantial settlement. They rode some hours into the night before setting camp in a stretch of farmland laid fallow.

At last the Portogan soldiers set a small cook-fire and indulged in a modest repast. They were still quite full from Torrez' hearty lunch. After all had eaten and the horses tethered and groomed Archon and Xander began an ad hoc meeting.

“We have come far in a short amount of time, my friends,” declared the aged seer of Dweomer Village. “Now the moment has come for us to clarify our next course of action. We are open to all of your suggestions.”

Ram stood to address the seated group.

“Archon and Xander, we have learned much in regard to the location of Gor and the Ashgar talisman. Our quest has grown hard and foreboding. We are bound to be several months on the road and will surely encounter many perils along the way. It escapes me, at this time, how we will traverse the Sea of Ice although that is not an impossible objective.”

“I may be able to suggest a plan,” stated Lady Rosalia. “We Portogans are known seafarers. If correspondence is sent to Captain Jairo he can be notified of our predicament and set sail to rendezvous with us at the southern port on the Sea of Ice. To do this, of course, we will need to negotiate passage through Narzuk and Cantar, respectively. In a sense, this may prove beneficial for it will give Jairo time to navigate his ships to that port.”

“Your counsel is sound, Lady Rosalia,” answered Archon. “Let us act on your suggestion and send a message to your Captain Jairo via Lord Aquiline. We shall pen a letter and forward it at the next aviary. In the meantime let us all get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us.”

The members of the group nodded their agreement with the plan and retired for the evening. They slept lightly in the middle of the field.

The night passed without event and the travelers continued on their way at the dawn. The trees grew sporadically and formed a staggered colonnade along the earthen path heading east into Narzuk.

Many residents of the nation lived in conjoined ranch houses and tight communities. They eyed the entourage of adventurers with concern and went about their business cautiously.

The group traversed the trail for some miles when Hedrick spotted a pillar of smoke on the horizon.

“Look, all of you!” he cried. “There is something afoot on the road ahead!”

“Aye, Hedrick,” answered a Portogan knight. “I fear who or what may be causing that amount of smoke.”

The mustached soldier drew his sword.

“Let us make haste to that place, my fellows. It seems there is a settlement in need of assistance.”

The group urged their steeds into a gallop and targeted the rising smoke over the cluster of trees before them.

Once within the grove of pines and oaks all was chaos and bedlam. A set of connected buildings, forming a ranch, was ablaze. It was the source of the smoke.

A sizable number of troglodytes and goblin-men was pillaging the Narzuk settlement. The hostile humanoids turned from their grisly project and stared at the charging band. They wielded their weapons against the Portogan vanguard but were no match for the tactical abilities of the elite soldiers.

Hedrick and Ram were quick to follow with Lady Rosalia and Wren. They wielded their respective weapons against a gathering of troglodytes. The defenses of the reptilian humanoids were quickly compromised by the slashing steel of the Dweomers and Portogan woman.

The Rogue stayed in the back with Bluefox, Sindariel and the wizards. They pelted the slavering goblin-men with arrows from their bows and fireballs from their staffs.

The Portogan knights had laid waste to the initial group they'd encountered and turned their horses for another pass. This time their adversaries were fully alert and had given up their attempt to destroy the settlement to a greater degree.

The sound of steel meeting steel echoed through the grove of trees and sparks flew between the clashing blades. At last the remainder of hostiles fell to the adept blades of the Portogan fighters. They were enraged and disgusted at the attack on the peaceful community and dealt with the brigands in due course.

Once the troglodytes and goblin-men were defeated The Rogue and wood elves rushed forward to triage the wounded Narzuk townsfolk. There was nothing to be done for the homes and barns consumed in flame.

Sindariel and Bluefox did well in healing the wounded. They were adept clerics and used their training to bring comfort to the survivors of the raid. Lady Rosalia and the other members of Hedrick's band helped the Narzuk villagers as best they could.

“It pains me to think that this could have happened to the people of our own settlement, Hedrick,” said Ram.

“Yes, uncle,” answered the Dweomer. “We were wise to flee the Ashgar Forest when we did.”

The journeyers stayed with the Narzuk villagers through the night. The flaming buildings were reduced to cinders and eventually extinguished themselves.

“Archon, what will become of these people?” The Rogue asked.

“I don't know, Rogue,” answered the aged wizard. “We will advise them that it is no longer safe in these hills but we are yet a long distance from the turbulent political setting of the principle city of Narzuk. Perhaps they will be better off on their own, as nomads.”

“The elves and I have tended to the injuries of the fallen,” said Wren. “Thank you for your help, Rogue.”

“You're welcome, Wren,” replied the aged scout.

Wren turned to address the leader of the Dweomers.

“Archon, we've done what we can for these people. I recommend we move on at the dawn. Our presence will only provoke future hostility against the Narzuk villagers.”

“I agree, Wren. We should make preparations to be on our way with the return of the sun.”

The Dweomer mage looked to the sky.

“The dawn fast approaches. We have little time.”

The other members of the band nodded their agreement and set themselves to the task of returning to the road.

























CHAPTER THREE



The vast hills and steppes of Narzuk were known throughout the Fae Realm for their rugged beauty and untamed peaks. Trade had gone on for ages with the west and was noted well in the records of the Portogans and wood elves, respectively.

The band of travelers moved on through the borderlands with caution. None of them knew when the troglodytes and goblin-men would stage another attack on the behalf of Gor. The air was warm and dry and the sun shone through the dusty haze.

Hedrick took the opportunity to take a drink from his water flask as he rode next to Wren.

“I noticed that you are a Dweomer, Wren. How is it that you joined The Hand in Obelix? I thought all Dweomers thrived in the Ashgar Forest.”

“Yes, Hedrick. It is true that my parents, like you, lived most of their lives in a remote settlement in the forest. They sought a different way of life, however, and were captivated by the elaborate cities of the world. My father, especially, was fond of books and scrolls documenting the War of the Ancients and the time before. He wanted to keep up to date with the happenings of the world and was drawn to The Hand for it's adamant approach to reconnaissance. He was the first Dweomer conscript to the guild, incidentally. I grew up in Obelix but have always missed the company of my kind, like you and your uncle.”

“That's interesting, Wren,” answered Hedrick. “I never left the woods until the recent course of events. It has been inspiring, though, to see the castle of Lord Aquiline and your eclectic city. Perhaps you can share with me some of your knowledge of the outside world as we continue our quest. I am an apt student, as I'm sure you'll see.”

“Good, Hedrick. I have a few maps and scrolls with me and can introduce you to the archives of the guild upon our eventual return to Obelix. You'd be surprised at how much correspondence takes place among the nations of the Fae Realm. It is an essential element of commerce, I suppose.”

“I believe you, Wren,” replied Hedrick. “Uncle Ram says ideas are just as important as real objects. Language and symbols allow us to communicate across large distances and tracts of time.”

The Dweomers chatted further as the traveling party moved on through the hills and steppes of Narzuk. The natives of the region continued to keep the journeyers at a safe distance and refrained from approaching them.

As the band moved on Sindariel noticed fresh tracks in the earthen path.

“Many horses have passed through here, recently,” observed the wood elf. “I suspect the troglodytes and goblin-men are on the move. It is likely that they are looking for us.”

“I agree,” said The Rogue. “These markings are the same as many I have encountered on the Ashgar Forest road. Let us be on our way. It is advisable that we prolong a direct confrontation as long as possible.”

The fighters and magic users stayed their course and did not stop although night fast approached.

“I will not illuminate the road, my friends,” declared Archon. “I shall navigate us by the light of the stars, which I have studied in depth. The light is sufficient for our needs and this trail is well-worn.”

The group rode for several hours under the light of the stars and constellations in the night sky.

Hedrick was impressed by Archon's familiarity with the positions of the celestial bodies.

Bluefox next addressed his companions.

“Be on the alert, my friends. There are torches burning beyond the hills. There is definitely a search taking place tonight.”

“I fear we are about to be detected, Archon,” said Ram. “I think now is as good a time as any for us to make haste.”

“Yes, good people,” answered the aged Dweomer. “Let us spur our mounts to the horizon. If my orientation is correct the untamed mountains of Narzuk are within reach. It will do us good to claim the high ground in the event that we become surrounded. Onward!”

The group charged forward and urged their steeds into a gallop. The moon rose over the hills and added light to their path. As they rode to the top of the nearest knoll their hearts were filled with dread. A massive, gibbering horde of troglodytes and goblin-men waited in the shallow valley on the other side. The hostile humanoids were mounted and bore flaming torches and glinting swords. A handful of goblin-men lifted hollowed ram's horns to their lips and blew the note to attack. The army of the Daemon unleashed a booming battle cry and headed toward Hedrick and his friends.

“Oh dear,” said Archon. “We are in trouble. There are too many of them here. Sindariel and Bluefox fire your arrows into the echelons. We may be able to purchase time to go around them.

Lady Rosalia and her Portogan knights drew their swords, ready to head into the horde.

Archon addressed the anxious warriors.

“Please stay with the group, brave Portogans. We will be lucky to get out of this without losing any of our number. A direct assault at this point would be foolish.

“As you wish, Archon,” answered Rosalia.

Lord Aquiline's wife gestured for her vanguard to remain in its current formation. They complied but eyed the slavering humanoids in the valley with disgust.

Archon gave a tactical order to the group.

“Let us break right as fast as we can. Xander and I will assert a magical diversion and in the process slow the approach of the troglodytes. Continue your barrage of arrows, friend wood elves. I have confidence in your faculties of marksmanship.

Archon uttered his practiced enchantment again summoning a pair of wyverns over his shoulders.

“Zinder!”

The dragonlings focused quickly on the mass of enemies before them and spat a steady volley of acrid fireballs at the heart of the echelons.

Xander employed his magic fireball spell.

“Ballust!”

His enchanted missiles flared brightly and left trails of steaming flame in the air as they flashed forward into the body of the goblin-men. Several marauders and their mounts were struck directly by the barrage of projectiles and fell to the ground, shrieking in flame. Their positions were quickly filled by sizable reserves, ready to complete Gor's intentions.

The journeyers guided their mounts right as ordered and raced at full gallop around the perimeter of the evil horde. The troglodytes also had marksmen in their number and the air whistled around Hedrick as their wicked bolts flew within range.

“Yah, horse!” yelled Ram. “The middle-aged Dweomer carried much in his saddlebags and was determined not to fall behind as his companions made their break to escape the evil echelons.

Archon and his fellows made a great effort and began to gallop around the right edge of the circle of forces. Their missiles and arrows did enough to slow their opponents from pulling into their immediate path.

The troglodytes recognized that a head-on conflict was not taking place and sought to pursue the faster group at their perimeter. They urged their stallions to a frenzied gallop and headed toward their fleeing quarry.

The chase was on and neither side was willing to accept failure. Hedrick and Wren, being light in the saddle, soon moved to the front of their mounted group.

The moon had risen higher in the night sky and the sandstone peaks of the untamed mountains of Narzuk reflected the light in an angular cluster.

“Archon, those mountains are neutral and unclaimed by Narzuk or Cantar,” yelled Sindariel. “I can explain why this is the case in greater depth at a more opportune time. Our horses are faster than theirs but can only keep up this fever pace for so long. We must take the high ground while we can. There are ruins in those mountains from a pre-historic time. They are bound to offer a modecum of protection from the malevolent aggression of the horde close behind us. I suggest we make haste to the untamed mountains of Narzuk before it is too late.”

“Very well, Sindariel,” replied Archon.

The leader of the Dweomers turned to his companions.

“All of you, let us maintain our pace. Our lives surely depend on it at this juncture. Our loyal horses will rest soon. Once we scale the untamed mountains there will be time to prepare our defenses.”

“Yes, Archon, answered Ram and the others. “You have our lead. Let's go!”

It was a good mile to the first of the foothills of the mountains in question. The moon rose high in the sky and the etchings of very old architecture became visible on the nearly geometric angles of the sandstone mountains.

The determined riders reached their goal in a matter of minutes and they turned their mounts to view a field of torches and goblin-men hollering in the foothills below.

There is little time, my friends,” stated Sindariel. “Let us ascend these ancient ruins in search of shelter at least and an avenue of escape at best.

Hedrick had ridden farther into the network of ruins than his companions. He found a breath-taking structure. It had been carved into the foot of the largest sand stone mountain. Giant statues of jackyl anthromorph deities stood on the sides of what appeared to be an abandoned entrance.

The young Dweomer turned and beckoned to his friends.

“Archon, Ram, I think there may be a hiding place here. It seems that forces may only enter this structure one or two at a time. This may help us to survive our pursuit.”

The members of the group came quickly to Hedrick's viewpoint and looked at the mysterious entrance with desperation.

“That's fine, Hedrick,” said Archon. “Let us go inside, my companions. It will do us no good to dally out here.”

The members of the party quickly nodded their agreement and guided their horses into the geometric structure in single file. Once all were within the dark chamber Archon activated his spell of illumination.

“Luzus!”

The light of the wizard's staff was bright and revealed a long hallway carved deep into the sandstone. The walls extended over a hundred feet above and all of the surfaces were marked with faded symbols of a language Hedrick had never before encountered.

Before the group was able to analyze their surroundings further a flurry of arrows struck the entrance of the hallway. The sound of guttural grumbling and flickering torches grew near.

The Portogan knights drew their swords in preparation for a pivotal conflict.

“Look here, Ram,” said Lady Rosalia. “There is some kind of a lever in this wall.”

Ram knelt next to Aquiline's Lady and looked at the device in question.

“Ah, that's interesting, Lady Rosalia. That must be a fulcrum release lever. If I pull it here...”

“Wait!” cried The Rogue. “It could be a trap! We may all be crushed or worse.”

“No, it's alright, Rogue,” answered the tinker. “I can see the lay lines made of chain. They extend from here to the front of the entrance. See that obelisk above? It will slide down and bar our enemies from following. What do you think, my friends? The troglodytes are fast approaching.”

“I agree with the tinker,” said Sindariel. “We wood elves use similar mechanics to secure our platforms from above. This system is sound. We will not be crushed, Rogue.”

“Very well,” stated Archon. “Bring in the horses and tether them well. They will be safe with us inside this ancient structure.”

The group of adventurers did as Archon asked and secured their steeds. Another flurry of arrows struck the entrance.

“Pull the lever, Ram,” asked the aged seer.

Ram did as his friend requested and gave the device a firm pull.

All of the people present heard the turning of gears and the pouring of sand from a great height. Lay lines made of chain clinked and clattered as they moved along their intended course.

A third jackyl statue slowly lowered from the ceiling. It was twice the size of the other two and must have taken years of chiseling to complete. It settled in the opening that had been the party's entrance with a thud. In a matter of moments the sound of growling and pounding metal could be heard from the other side of the ancient barrier.

Hedrick let out a deep breath.

“That's a relief,” he said. “The mechanics of this ancient structure are in surprisingly good working condition. I wonder who or what has maintained them. We may have him to thank for our lives.”

“I agree, Hedrick,” replied Sindariel. “The machines in my citadel take teams of engineers working around the clock to keep running. I'm sure this is a mystery we will soon get to the bottom of. Let us lead our horses down this passage and discover what these untamed mountains hold in store for us.”

The walls were covered with ancient pictographs. They were elaborate and sophisticated. None of the travelers were able to decipher their meaning, however.

They continued down the hall under the guidance of Archon's light. The air was surprisingly clear and hinted that there were ventilation shafts located far above.

The initial hallway continued on for several hundred yards until it intersected with several lateral passages.

“These aged halls are baffling,” observed Archon. “Sindariel, do you or The Rogue have any inkling as to the shortest way through this mountainous structure?”

“I'm sorry, Archon,” answered the senior elf. “This place is referred to as the untamed mountains for good reason. It was excavated and built thousands of years of ago, when the race of elves was very young. The founders of this once prosperous civilization are long gone, although not, perhaps, without sharing some relation with the modern tribes of Narzuk and the neighboring regions.”

“It would be good to take much time to record and study the significance of these etchings and designs,” said Ram. “Alas, we have our impending quest on our shoulders and must hasten onward. I suggest we take the straight path. That seems to be the most logical course. Let us remain on our guard, however, for none of us know what security measures the custodians of this formidable edifice have put into place over the years.”

The members of the group nodded their agreement with the tinker's suggestion and maintained their existing heading. The horses whinnied and flicked their tails in confusion. They were unfamiliar with the ancient surroundings.

A deep, bass voice permeated the hallway from some distance above.

“That is far enough, trespassers! These ruins belong to the Den of Thieves. No one who ventures here lives to tell the tale.”

The Portogan knights drew their weapons. Lady Rosalia did the same.

“There must be some means with which we can negotiate our passage,” breathed Xander.

“Archon, with your permission, let me address this new-found menace.”

“Certainly, Xander,” replied the leader of the Dweomers. “But make haste for this Den of Thieves sounds ruthless.”

“We seek asylum here,” yelled the southern Dweomer. “There is a horde of troglodytes and goblin-men outside. Our only avenue of escape was through this structure. Please, let us pass. We are willing to trade.”

A series of torches ignited over a hundred feet above the group. Over the nearest intersection of passages was a balcony filled with a cluster of tough-looking thieves.

“That is possible, Dweomer,” answered a tall Narzuk man. He was the bearer of the deep voice. “But not without a test.”

“And what kind of a test is that?” asked Xander.

“You will soon see,” replied the apparent leader of the Den of Thieves. “I am Khafret. We will meet again, if you survive.”

The line of torches extinguished and the journeyers were left in silence and the light of Archon's staff.

A loud rumbling shook the hall in which Hedrick and his companions stood. The floor moved and descended at an angle. The journeyers were surprised by the sudden movement but quickly regained their balance. The horses whinnied with concern as the floor continued to descend. It formed a ramp to a lower level of the mysterious structure.

“We have no choice but to venture within,” declared Archon. “Let us bring our mounts along. Everyone be on the alert. None of us can know what this Den of Thieves holds in store for those who find themselves in this place.”

The travelers complied with the aged Dweomer seer's advice. They followed the light of his gnarled staff into the looming hallway.

Hedrick saw more of the strange symbols on the walls. Many of the characters etched in stone resembled commonly encountered objects. These ranged from axes and staffs to falcons and jackyls.

“This must be the language of the ancient desert,” observed the Dweomer. “I wish I could discern its meaning. Perhaps it would give us intelligence as to what lurks ahead.”

“I'm sure the message is one of warning, Hedrick,” replied Sindariel. “The architecture of this place, I'm sorry to say, is much like many old ambushes designed by my people. We are surely to be tested here and must keep our wits about us.”

The wood elves drew their bows and blades. The Portogans and others wielded their respective weapons as they guided their horses farther into the edifice.

At last another mechanical rumbling vibrated through the stone passage. The clanking of gears and rolling of wheels emanated from all sides.

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